Protein is a vital constituent of all organs in the body and is required to perform a vast variety of functions. Therefore, protein is an essentialnutrient that must be consumed in the diet. Many Pacific Island societies such as the Native Hawaiians accompanied their starch meals with some type of meat or seafood. Fish is known to be a complete protein source which means that all nine essential amino acids are present in the recommended amounts needed. Today, the most popular and contemporary prepared way of eating fish is known as poke. Poke, which means “cut up pieces” in Hawaiian, is chopped up chunks of fish that can be seasoned in a variety of different ways. Some common ways of seasoning include salt, shoyu (soy sauce), limu (seaweed), garlic, and onions. This is where the culinary trend of pokebowls originated from.
Protein makes up approximately 20 percent of the human body and is present in every single cell. The word protein is a Greek word, meaning “of utmost importance.” Proteins are called the workhorses of life as they provide the body with structure and perform a vast array of functions. You can stand, walk, run, skate, swim, and more because of your protein-rich muscles. Protein is necessary for proper immune system function, digestion, and hair and nail growth, and is involved in numerous other body functions. In fact, it is estimated that more than one hundred thousand different proteins exist within the human body. In this chapter you will learn about the components of protein, the important roles that protein serves within the body, how the body uses protein, the risks and consequences associated with too much or too little protein, and where to find healthy sources of it in your diet.
What is Protein?
Proteins, simply put, are macromolecules composed of amino acids. Amino acids are commonly called protein’s building blocks. Proteins are crucial for the nourishment, renewal, and continuance of life. Proteins contain the elements carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen just as carbohydrates and lipids do, but proteins are the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen. In each amino acid the elements are arranged into a specific conformation around a carbon center. Each amino acid consists of a central carbon atom connected to a side chain, a hydrogen, a nitrogen-containing amino group, and a carboxylicacidgroup—hence the name “amino acid.” Amino acids differ from each other by which specific side chain is bonded to the carbon center.
Amino acids contain four elements. The arrangement of elements around the carbon center is the same for all amino acids. Only the side chain (R) differs.
It’s All in the Side Chain
The side chain of an amino acid, sometimes called the “R” group, can be as simple as one hydrogen bonded to the carbon center, or as complex as a six-carbon ring bonded to the carbon center. Although each side chain of the twenty amino acids is unique, there are some chemical likenesses among them. Therefore, they can be classified into four different groups. These are nonpolar, polar, acidic, and basic.
Figure 6.2 The Different Groups of Amino Acids
Amino acids are classified into four groups. These are nonpolar, polar, acidic, and basic.
Essential and Nonessential Amino Acids
Amino acids are further classified based on nutritional aspects. Recall that there are twenty different amino acids, and we require all of them to make the many different proteins found throughout the body. Eleven of these are called nonessential amino acids because the body can synthesize them. However, nine of the amino acids are called essential amino acids because we cannot synthesize them either at all or in sufficient amounts. These must be obtained from the diet. Sometimes during infancy, growth, and in diseased states the body cannot synthesize enough of some of the nonessential amino acids and more of them are required in the diet. These types of amino acids are called conditionally essential amino acids. The nutritional value of a protein is dependent on what amino acids it contains and in what quantities.
Table 6.1 Essential and Nonessential Amino Acids
Different Types of Proteins
As discussed, there are over one hundred thousand different proteins in the human body. Different proteins are produced because there are twenty types of naturally occurring amino acids that are combined in unique sequences to form polypeptides. These polypeptide chains then fold into a three-dimensional shape to form a protein (see Figure 6.3 “Formation of Polypeptides”). Additionally, proteins come in many different sizes. The hormone insulin, which regulates blood glucose, is composed of only fifty-one amino acids; whereas collagen, a protein that acts like glue between cells, consists of more than one thousand amino acids. Titin is the largest known protein. It accounts for the elasticity of muscles, and consists of more than twenty-five thousand amino acids! The abundant variations of proteins are due to the unending number of amino acid sequences that can be formed. For example, if an amino acid sequence for a protein is 104 amino acids long the possible combinations of amino acid sequences is equal to 2×10135, which is a 2 followed by 135 zeros.
The building of a protein consists of a complex series of chemical reactions that can be summarized into three basic steps: transcription, translation, and protein folding. The first step in constructing a protein is the transcription (copying) of the genetic information in double-stranded deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) into the single-stranded, messenger macromolecule ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA is chemically similar to DNA, but has two differences; one is that its backbone uses the sugar ribose and not deoxyribose; and two, it contains the nucleotide base uracil, and not thymidine. The RNA that is transcribed from a given piece of DNA contains the same information as that DNA, but it is now in a form that can be read by the cellular protein manufacturer known as the ribosome. Next, the RNA instructs the cells to gather all the necessary amino acids and add them to the growing protein chain in a very specific order. This process is referred to as translation. The decoding of genetic information to synthesize a protein is the central foundation of modern biology.
Figure 6.4 Steps for Building a Protein
During translation each amino acid is connected to the next amino acid by a special chemical bond called a peptide bond. The peptide bond forms between the carboxylicacid group of one amino acid and the amino group of another, releasing a molecule of water. The third step in protein production involves folding it into its correct shape. Specific amino acid sequences contain all the information necessary to spontaneously fold into a particular shape. A change in the amino acid sequence will cause a change in protein shape. Each protein in the human body differs in its amino acid sequence and consequently, its shape. The newly synthesized protein is structured to perform a particular function in a cell. A protein made with an incorrectly placed amino acid may not function properly and this can sometimes cause disease. In patients with Cystic Fibrosis, a mutation in the CFTR gene may result in small changes in the amino-acid chain, leading to misfolded proteins and consequential symptoms.
Protein’s structure enables it to perform a variety of functions. Proteins are similar to carbohydrates and lipids in that they are polymers of simple repeating units; however, proteins are much more structurally complex. In contrast to carbohydrates, which have identical repeating units, proteins are made up of amino acids that are different from one another. Furthermore, a protein is organized into fourdifferentstructurallevels.
Primary: The first level is the one-dimensional sequence of amino acids that are held together by peptide bonds. Carbohydrates and lipids also are one-dimensional sequences of their respective monomers, which may be branched, coiled, fibrous, or globular, but their conformation is much more random and is not organized by their sequence of monomers.
Secondary: The second level of protein structure is dependent on the chemical interactions between amino acids, which cause the protein to fold into a specific shape, such as a helix (like a coiled spring) or sheet.
Tertiary: The third level of protein structure is three-dimensional. As the different side chains of amino acids chemically interact, they either repel or attract each other, resulting in the foldedstructure. Thus, the specific sequence of amino acids in a protein directs the protein to fold into a specific, organized shape.
Quaternary: The fourth level of structure is achieved when protein fragments called peptides combine to make one larger functional protein. The protein hemoglobin is an example of a protein that has quaternary structure. It is composed of four peptides that bond together to form a functional oxygen carrier.
A protein’s structure also influences its nutritional quality. Large fibrous protein structures are more difficult to digest than smaller proteins and some, such as keratin, are indigestible. Because digestion of some fibrous proteins is incomplete, not all of the amino acids are absorbed and available for the body to utilize, thereby decreasing their nutritional value.
How do the proteins from foods, denatured or not, get processed into amino acids that cells can use to make new proteins?
When you eat food, the body’s digestive system breaks down the protein into the individual amino acids, which are absorbed and used by cells to build other proteins and a few other macromolecules, such as DNA. Previously, the general process of food digestion was discussed, now on to the specific path that proteins take down the gastrointestinal tract and into the circulatory system (Figure 6.7 “Digestion and Absorption of Protein”). Eggs are a good dietary source of protein and will be used as our example to describe the path of proteins in the processes of digestion and absorption. One egg, whether raw, hard-boiled, scrambled, or fried, supplies about six grams of protein.
Unless an egg is eaten raw, the first step in egg digestion (or any other protein food) involves chewing. The teeth begin the mechanical breakdown of the large egg pieces into smaller pieces that can be swallowed. The salivary glands provide some saliva to aid swallowing and the passage of the partially mashed egg through the esophagus. The mashed egg pieces enter the stomach through the esophageal sphincter. The stomach releases gastric juices containing hydrochloric acid and the enzyme, pepsin, which initiate the breakdown of the protein. The acidity of the stomach facilitates the unfolding of the proteins that still retain part of their three-dimensional structure after cooking and helps break down the protein aggregates formed during cooking. Pepsin, which is secreted by the cells that line the stomach, dismantles the protein chains into smaller and smaller fragments. Egg proteins are large globular molecules and their chemical breakdown requires time and mixing. The powerful mechanical stomach contractions churn the partially digested protein into a more uniform mixture called chyme. Protein digestion in the stomach takes a longer time than carbohydrate digestion, but a shorter time than fat digestion. Eating a high-protein meal increases the amount of time required to sufficiently break down the meal in the stomach. Food remains in the stomach longer, making you feel full longer.
From the Stomach to the Small Intestine
The stomach empties the chyme containing the broken down egg pieces into the small intestine, where the majorityofprotein digestion occurs. The pancreas secretes digestive juice that contains more enzymes that further break down the protein fragments. The two major pancreatic enzymes that digest proteins are chymotrypsin and trypsin. The cells that line the small intestine release additional enzymes that finally break apart the smaller protein fragments into the individual amino acids. The muscle contractions of the small intestine mix and propel the digested proteins to the absorption sites. In the lower parts of the small intestine, the amino acids are transported from the intestinal lumen through the intestinal cells to the blood. This movement of individual amino acids requires special transport proteins and the cellular energy molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Once the amino acids are in the blood, they are transported to the liver. As with other macronutrients, the liver is the checkpoint for amino acid distribution and any further breakdown of amino acids, which is very minimal. Recall that amino acids contain nitrogen, so further catabolism of amino acids releases nitrogen-containing ammonia. Because ammonia is toxic, the liver transforms it into urea, which is then transported to the kidney and excreted in the urine. Urea is a molecule that contains two nitrogens and is highly soluble in water. This makes it a good choice for transporting excess nitrogen out of the body. Because amino acids are building blocks that the body reserves in order to synthesize other proteins, more than 90 percent of the protein ingested does not get broken down further than the amino acid monomers.
Amino Acids are Recycled
Just as some plastics can be recycled to make new products, amino acids are recycled to make new proteins. All cells in the body continually break down proteins and build new ones, a process referred to as protein turnover. Every day over 250 grams of protein in your body are dismantled and 250 grams of new protein are built. To form these new proteins, amino acids from food and those from protein destruction are placed into a “pool.” Though it is not a literal pool, when an amino acid is required to build another protein it can be acquired from the additional amino acids that exist within the body. Amino acids are used not only to build proteins, but also to build other biological molecules containing nitrogen, such as DNA, RNA, and to some extent to produce energy. It is critical to maintain amino acid levels within this cellular pool by consuming high-quality proteins in the diet, or the amino acids needed for building new proteins will be obtained by increasing protein destruction from other tissues within the body, especially muscle. This amino acid pool is less than one percent of total body-protein content. Thus, the body does not store protein as it does with carbohydrates (as glycogen in the muscles and liver) and lipids (as triglycerides in adipose tissue).
Figure 6.8 Options For Amino Acid Use In The Human Body
Amino acids in the cellular pool come from dietary protein and from the destruction of cellular proteins. The amino acids in this pool need to be replenished because amino acids are outsourced to make new proteins, energy, and other biological molecules.
Protein’s Functions in the Body
Proteins are the “workhorses” of the body and participate in many bodily functions. Proteins come in all sizes and shapes and each is specifically structured for its particular function.
More than one hundred different structural proteins have been discovered in the human body, but the most abundant by far is collagen, which makes up about 6 percent of total body weight. Collagen makes up 30 percent of bone tissue and comprises large amounts of tendons, ligaments, cartilage, skin, and muscle. Collagen is a strong, fibrous protein made up of mostly glycine and proline (both conditionally essential amino acids). Within its quaternary structure three peptide strands twist around each other like a rope and then these collagen ropes overlap with others. This highly ordered structure is even stronger than steel fibers of the same size. Collagen makes bones strong, but flexible. Collagen fibers in the skin’s dermis provide it with structure, and the accompanying elastin protein fibrils make it flexible. Pinch the skin on your hand and then let go; the collagen and elastin proteins in skin allow it to go back to its original shape. Smooth-muscle cells that secrete collagen and elastin proteins surround blood vessels, providing the vessels with structure and the ability to stretch back after blood is pumped through them. Another strong, fibrous protein is keratin, which is what skin, hair, and nails are made of. The closely packed collagen fibrils in tendons and ligaments allow for synchronous mechanical movements of bones and muscle and the ability of these tissues to spring back after a movement is complete.
Although proteins are found in the greatest amounts in connective tissues such as bone, their most extraordinary function is as enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that conduct specific chemical reactions. An enzyme’s job is to provideasite for a chemical reaction and to lower the amount of energy and time it takes for that chemical reaction to happen (this is known as “catalysis”). On average, more than one hundred chemical reactions occur in cells every single second and most of them require enzymes. The liver alone contains over one thousand enzyme systems. Enzymes are specific and will use only particular substrates that fit into their active site, similar to the way a lock can be opened only with a specific key. Nearly every chemical reaction requires a specific enzyme. Fortunately, an enzyme can fulfill its role as a catalyst over and over again, although eventually it is destroyed and rebuilt. All bodily functions, including the breakdown of nutrients in the stomach and small intestine, the transformation of nutrients into molecules a cell can use, and building all macromolecules, including protein itself, involve enzymes (see Figure 6.10 “Enzymes Role in Carbohydrate Digestion”).
Figure 6.10 Enzymes Role in Carbohydrate Digestion
Proteins are responsible for hormone synthesis. Hormones are the chemical messages produced by the endocrineglands. When an endocrine gland is stimulated, it releases a hormone. The hormone is then transported in the blood to its target cell, where it communicates a message to initiate a specific reaction or cellular process. For instance, after you eat a meal, your blood glucose levels rise. In response to the increased blood glucose, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin. Insulin tells the cells of the body that glucose is available and to take it up from the blood and store it or use it for making energy or building macromolecules. A major function of hormones is to turn enzymes on and off, so some proteins can even regulate the actions of other proteins. While not all hormones are made from proteins, many of them are.
Fluid and Acid-Base Balance
Proper protein intake enables the basic biological processes of the body to maintain the status quo in a changing environment. Fluid balance refers to maintaining the distribution of water in the body. If too much water in the blood suddenly moves into a tissue, the results are swelling and, potentially, cell death. Water always flows from an area of high concentration to one of a low concentration. As a result, water moves toward areas that have higher concentrations of other solutes, such as proteins and glucose. To keep the water evenly distributed between blood and cells, proteins continuously circulate at high concentrations in the blood. The most abundant protein in blood is the butterfly-shaped protein known as albumin. Albumin’s presence in the blood makes the protein concentration in the blood similar to that in cells. Therefore, fluid exchange between the blood and cells is not in the extreme, but rather is minimized to preserve the status quo.
Figure 6.11 The Protein Albumin
PDB 1o9x EBI by Jawahar Swaminathan / EBI / Public Domain The butterfly-shaped protein, albumin, has many functions in the body including maintaining fluid and acid-base balance and transporting molecules.
Protein is also essential in maintaining proper pH balance (the measure of how acidic or basic a substance is) in the blood. Blood pH is maintained between 7.35 and 7.45, which is slightly basic. Even a slight change in blood pH can affect body functions. Recall that acidic conditions can cause protein denaturation, which stops proteins from functioning. The body has several systems that hold the blood pH within the normal range to prevent this from happening. One of these is the circulating albumin. Albumin is slightly acidic, and because it is negatively charged it balances the many positively charged molecules, such as protons (H+), calcium, potassium, and magnesium which are also circulating in the blood. Albumin acts as a buffer against abrupt changes in the concentrations of these molecules, thereby balancing blood pH and maintaining the status quo. The protein hemoglobin also participates in acid-base balance by binding and releasing protons.
Albumin and hemoglobin also play a role in molecular transport. Albumin chemically binds to hormones, fatty acids, some vitamins, essential minerals, and drugs, and transports them throughout the circulatory system. Each red blood cell contains millions of hemoglobin molecules that bind oxygen in the lungs and transport it to all the tissues in the body. A cell’s plasma membrane is usually not permeable to large polar molecules, so to get the required nutrients and molecules into the cell many transport proteins exist in the cell membrane. Some of these proteins are channels that allow particular molecules to move in and out of cells. Others act as one-way taxis and require energy to function.
Antibody chains by Fred the Oyster / Public Domain An antibody protein is made up of two heavy chains and two light chains. The variable region, which differs from one antibody to the next, allows an antibody to recognize its matching antigen.
Earlier we discussed that the strong collagen fibers in skin provide it with structure and support. The skin’s dense network of collagen fibers also serves as a barricade against harmful substances. The immune system’s attack and destroy functions are dependent on enzymes and antibodies, which are also proteins. An enzyme called lysozyme is secreted in the saliva and attacks the walls of bacteria, causing them to rupture. Certain proteins circulating in the blood can be directed to build a molecular knife that stabs the cellular membranes of foreign invaders. The antibodies secreted by the white blood cells survey the entire circulatory system looking for harmful bacteria and viruses to surround and destroy. Antibodies also trigger other factors in the immune system to seek and destroy unwanted intruders.
Wound Healing and Tissue Regeneration
Proteins are involved in all aspects of wound healing, a process that takes place in three phases: inflammatory,proliferative, and remodeling. For example, if you were sewing and pricked your finger with a needle, your flesh would turn red and become inflamed. Within a few seconds bleeding would stop. The healing process begins with proteins such as bradykinin, which dilate blood vessels at the site of injury. An additional protein called fibrin helps to secure platelets that form a clot to stop the bleeding. Next, in the proliferative phase, cells move in and mend the injured tissue by installing newly made collagen fibers. The collagen fibers help pull the wound edges together. In the remodeling phase, more collagen is deposited, forming a scar. Scar tissue is only about 80 percent as functional as normal uninjured tissue. If a diet is insufficient in protein, the process of wound healing is markedly slowed.
While wound healing takes place only after an injury is sustained, a different process called tissue regeneration is ongoing in the body. The main difference between wound healing and tissue regeneration is in the process of regenerating an exact structural and functional copy of the lost tissue. Thus, old, dying tissue is not replaced with scar tissue but with brand new, fully functional tissue. Some cells (such as skin, hair, nails, and intestinal cells) have a very high rate of regeneration, while others, (such as heart-muscle cells and nerve cells) do not regenerate at any appreciable levels. Tissue regeneration is the creation of new cells (cell division), which requires many different proteins including enzymes that synthesize RNA and proteins, transport proteins, hormones, and collagen. In a hair follicle, cells divide and a hair grows in length. Hair growth averages 1 centimeter per month and fingernails about 1 centimeter every one hundred days. The cells lining the intestine regenerate every three to five days. Protein-inadequate diets impair tissue regeneration, causing health problems including impairment of nutrient digestion and absorption and, most visibly, hair and nail growth.
Some of the amino acids in proteins can be disassembled and used to make energy (Figure 6.14 “Amino Acids Used for Energy”). Only about 10 percent of dietary proteins are catabolized each day to make cellular energy. The liver is able to break down amino acids to the carbon skeleton, which can then be fed into the citric acid cycle. This is similar to the way that glucose is used to make ATP. If a person’s diet does not contain enough carbohydrates and fats their body will use more amino acids to make energy, which compromises the synthesis of new proteins and destroys muscle proteins. Alternatively, if a person’s diet contains more protein than the body needs, the extra amino acids will be broken down and transformed into fat.
As you may recall, moderation refers to having the proper amount of a nutrient—having neither too little nor too much. A healthy diet incorporates all nutrients in moderation. Low protein intake has several health consequences, and a severe lack of protein in the diet eventually causes death. Although severe protein deficiency is a rare occurrence in children and adults in the United States, it is estimated that more than half of the elderly in nursing homes are protein-deficient. The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for protein for adults is between 10 and 35 percent of kilocalories, which is a fairly wide range. The percent of protein in the diet that is associated with malnutrition and its health consequences is less than 10 percent, but this is often accompanied by deficiencies in calories and other micronutrients. Next, too few and too much protein are discussed, as well as personal diet choices with respect to protein intake.
Health Consequences of Protein Deficiency
Although severe protein deficiency is rare in the developed world, it is a leading cause of death in children in many poor, underdeveloped countries. There are two main syndromes associated with protein deficiencies: Kwashiorkor and Marasmus.
Kwashiorkor affects millions of children worldwide. When it was first described in 1935, more than 90 percent of children with Kwashiorkor died. Although the associated mortality is slightly lower now, most children still die after the initiation of treatment. The name Kwashiorkor comes from a language in Ghana and means, “rejected one.” The syndrome was named because it occurred most commonly in children who had recently been weaned from the breast, usually because another child had just been born. Subsequently the child was fed watery porridge made from low-protein grains, which accounts for the low protein intake. Kwashiorkor is characterized by swelling (edema) of the feet and abdomen, poor skin health, growth retardation, low muscle mass, and livermalfunction. Recall that one of protein’s functional roles in the body is fluidbalance. Diets extremely low in protein do not provide enough amino acids for the synthesis of albumin. One of the functions of albumin is to hold water in the blood vessels (the colloid osmotic pressure), so having lower concentrations of blood albumin results in water moving out of the blood vessels and into tissues, causing edema. The primary symptoms of Kwashiorkor include not only edema, but also diarrhea, fatigue, peeling skin, and irritability. Severe protein deficiency in addition to other micronutrient deficiencies, such as folate (vitamin B9), iodine, iron, and vitamin C all contribute to the many health manifestations of this syndrome.
Figure 6.15 A Young Boy With Kwashiorkor
Source: Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Kwashiorkor is a disease brought on by a severe dietary protein deficiency. Symptoms include edema of legs and feet, light-colored, thinning hair, anemia, a pot-belly, and shiny skin.
Marasmus patients neither have enough protein in their diets nor do they take in enough calories. Marasmus affects mostly children below the age of one in poor countries. Body weights of children with Marasmus may be up to 80 percent less than that of a normal child of the same age. Marasmus is a Greek word, meaning “starvation.” The syndrome affects more than fifty million children under age five worldwide. It is characterized by an extreme emaciated appearance, poor skin health, and growth retardation. The symptoms are acute fatigue, hunger, and diarrhea.
Figure 6.16 Children With Marasmus
Japanese nurse with dependent children having typical appearance of malnutrition, New Bilibid Prison, September-October 1945 by Unknown / Public Domain
Kwashiorkor and marasmus often coexist as a combined syndrome termed marasmic kwashiorkor. Children with the combined syndrome have variable amounts of edema and the characterizations and symptoms of marasmus. Although organ system function is compromised by undernutrition, the ultimate cause of death is usually infection. Undernutrition is intricately linked with suppression of the immune system at multiple levels, so undernourished children commonly die from severe diarrhea and/or pneumonia resulting from bacterial or viral infection. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the most prominent agency with the mission of changing the world to improve children’s lives, reports that undernutrition causes at least one-third of deaths of young children. As of 2008, the prevalence of children under age five who were underweight was 26 percent. The percentage of underweight children has declined less than 5 percent in the last eighteen years despite the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by the year 2015.
Figure 6.17 Causes Of Death For Children Under The Age Of Five, Worldwide
Health Consequences of Too Much Protein in the Diet
An explicit definition of a high-protein diet has not yet been developed by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), but typically diets high in protein are considered as those that derive more than 30 percent of calories from protein. Many people following high-protein diets do so because marketers oversell protein’s ability to stimulate weight loss. It is true that following high-protein diets increases weight loss in some people. However the number of individuals that remain on this type of diet is low and many people who try the diet and stop regain the weight they had lost. As the high-protein diet trend arose so did the intensely debated issue of whether there are any health consequences of eating too much protein. Observational studies conducted in the general population suggest diets high in animal protein, specifically those in which the primary protein source is red meat, are linked to a higher risk for kidney stones, kidney disease, liver malfunction, colorectal cancer, and osteoporosis. However, diets that include lots of red meat are also high in saturated fat and cholesterol and sometimes linked to unhealthy lifestyles, so it is difficult to conclude that the high protein content is the culprit.
High protein diets appear to only increase the progression of kidney disease and liver malfunction in people who already have kidney or liver malfunction, and not to cause these problems. However, the prevalence of kidney disorders is relatively high and underdiagnosed. In regard to colon cancer, an assessment of more than ten studies performed around the world published in the June 2011 issue of PLoS purports that a high intake of red meat and processed meat is associated with a significant increase in colon cancer risk.Although there are a few ideas, the exact mechanism of how proteins, specifically those in red and processed meats, causes colon cancer is not yet known and requires further study.
Some scientists hypothesize that high-protein diets may accelerate bone-tissue loss because under some conditions the acids in protein block absorption of calcium in the gut, and, once in the blood, amino acids promote calcium loss from bone; however even these effects have not been consistently observed in scientific studies. Results from the Nurses’ Health Study suggest that women who eat more than 95 grams of protein each day have a 20 percent higher risk for wrist fracture.
Other studies have not produced consistent results. The scientific data on high protein diets and increased risk for osteoporosis remains highly controversial and more research is needed to come to any conclusions about the association between the two.
High-protein diets can restrict other essential nutrients. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that “High-protein diets are not recommended because they restrict healthful foods that provide essential nutrients and do not provide the variety of foods needed to adequately meet nutritional needs. Individuals who follow these diets are therefore at risk for compromised vitamin and mineral intake, as well as potential cardiac, renal, bone, and liver abnormalities overall.”
As with any nutrient, protein must be eaten in proper amounts. Moderation and variety are key strategies to achieving a healthy diet and need to be considered when optimizing protein intake.
St. Jeor ST, et al. Dietary Protein and Weight Reduction: A Statement for Healthcare Professionals from the Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism of the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2001; 104, 1869–74. http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=11591629. Accessed September 28, 2017.
Proteins, Diet, and Personal Choices
We have discussed what proteins are, how they are made, how they are digested and absorbed, the many functions of proteins in the body, and the consequences of having too little or too much protein in the diet. This section will provide you with information on how to determine the recommended amount of protein for you, and your many choices in designing an optimal diet with high-quality protein sources.
How Much Does a Person Need in their Diet
The recommendations set by the IOM for the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) and AMDR for protein for different age groups are listed in Table 6.2 “Dietary Reference Intakes for Protein”. A Tolerable Upper Intake Limit for protein has not been set, but it is recommended that you do not exceed the upper end of the AMDR.
Table 6.2 Dietary Reference Intakes for Protein
AMDR (% calories)
Infants (0–6 mo)
Infants (7–12 mo)
Adult Males (19+)
Adult Females (19+)
* Denotes Adequate Intake
Source: Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Institute of Medicine. September 5, 2002. Accessed September 28, 2017.
Protein Input = Protein Used by the Body + Protein Excreted
The appropriate amount of protein in a person’s diet is that which maintains a balance between what is taken in and what is used. The RDAs for protein were determined by assessing nitrogen balance. Nitrogen is one of the four basic elements contained in all amino acids. When proteins are broken down and amino acids are catabolized, nitrogen is released. Remember that when the liver breaks down amino acids, it produces ammonia, which is rapidly converted to nontoxic, nitrogen-containing urea, which is then transported to the kidneys for excretion. Most nitrogen is lost as urea in the urine, but urea is also excreted in the feces. Proteins are also lost in sweat and as hair and nails grow. The RDA, therefore, is the amount of protein a person should consume in their diet to balance the amount of protein used up and lost from the body. For healthy adults, this amount of protein was determined to be 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. You can calculate your exact recommended protein intake per day based on your weight by using the following equation:
(Weight in kg) × 0.8 g/kg OR (Weight in lbs. × 0.36 g/kg)
Note that if a person is overweight, the amount of dietary protein recommended can be overestimated.
The IOM used data from multiple studies that determined nitrogen balance in people of different age groups to calculate the RDA for protein. A person is said to be in nitrogen balance when the nitrogen input equals the amount of nitrogen used and excreted. A person is in negative nitrogen balance when the amount of excreted nitrogen is greater than that consumed, meaning that the body is breaking down more protein to meet its demands. This state of imbalance can occur in people who have certain diseases, such as cancer or muscular dystrophy. Someone who has a low-protein diet may also be in negative nitrogen balance as they are taking in less protein than what they actually need. Positive nitrogen balance occurs when a person excretes less nitrogen than what is taken in by the diet, such as during child growth or pregnancy. At these times the body requires more protein to build new tissues, so more of what gets consumed gets used up and less nitrogen is excreted. A person healing from a severe wound may also be in positive nitrogen balance because protein is being used up to repair tissues.
Dietary Sources of Protein
The protein food group consists of foods made from meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, soy, dry beans, peas, and seeds. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “animal protein and vegetable protein probably have the same effects on health. It’s the protein package that’s likely to make a difference.”
Simply put, different protein sources differ in their additional components, so it is necessary to pay attention to the whole nutrient “package.” Protein-rich animal-based foods commonly have high amounts of B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Seafood often contains healthy fats, and plant sources of protein contain a high amount of fiber. Some animal-based protein-rich foods have an unhealthy amount of saturated fat and cholesterol. When choosing your dietary sources of protein, take note of the other nutrients and also the non-nutrients, such as cholesterol, dyes, and preservatives, in order to make good selections that will benefit your health. For instance, a hamburger patty made from 80 percent lean meat contains 22 grams of protein, 5.7 grams of saturated fat, and 77 milligrams of cholesterol. A burger made from 95 percent lean meat also contains 22 grams of protein, but has 2.3 grams of saturated fat and 60 milligrams of cholesterol. A cup of boiled soybeans contains 29 grams of protein, 2.2 grams of saturated fat, and no cholesterol. For more comparisons of protein-rich foods, see Table 6.3 “Sources of Dietary Protein”. To find out the complete nutrient package of different foods, visit the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Composition Databases.
Table 6.3 Sources of Dietary Protein
Protein Content (g)
Saturated Fat (g)
Hamburger patty 3 oz. (80% lean)
Hamburger patty 3 oz. (95% lean)
Top sirloin 3 oz.
Beef chuck 3 oz. (lean, trimmed)
Pork loin 3 oz.
Pork ribs (country style, 1 piece)
Chicken breast (roasted, 1 c.)
Chicken thigh (roasted, 1 thigh)
Chicken leg (roasted, 1 leg)
Salmon 3 oz.
Tilapia 3 oz.
Halibut 3 oz.
Shrimp 3 oz.
Shrimp (breaded, fried, 6–8 pcs.)
Tuna 3 oz. (canned)
Soybeans 1 c. (boiled)
Lentils 1 c. (boiled)
Kidney beans 1 c. (canned)
Sunflower seeds 1 c.
The USDA provides some tips for choosing your dietary protein sources. Their motto is, “Go Lean with Protein”. The overall suggestion is to eat a variety of protein-rich foods to benefit health. The USDA recommends lean meats, such as round steaks, top sirloin, extra lean ground beef, pork loin, and skinless chicken. Additionally, a person should consume 8 ounces of cooked seafood every week (typically as two 4-ounce servings) to assure they are getting the healthy omega-3 fatty acids that have been linked to a lower risk for heart disease. Another tip is choosing to eat dry beans, peas, or soy products as a main dish. Some of the menu choices include chili with kidney and pinto beans, hummus on pita bread, and black bean enchiladas. You could also enjoy nuts in a variety of ways. You can put them on a salad, in a stir-fry, or use them as a topping for steamed vegetables in place of meat or cheese. If you do not eat meat, the USDA has much more information on how to get all the protein you need from a plant-based diet. When choosing the best protein-rich foods to eat, pay attention to the whole nutrient package and remember to select from a variety of protein sources to get all the other essential micronutrients.
While protein is contained in a wide variety of foods, it differs in quality. High-quality protein contains all the essential amino acids in the proportions needed by the human body. The amino acid profile of different foods is therefore one component of protein quality. Foods that contain some of the essential amino acids are called incomplete protein sources, while those that contain all nine essential amino acids are called complete protein sources, or high-quality protein sources. Foods that are complete protein sources include animal foods such as milk, cheese, eggs, fish, poultry, and meat, and some plant foods, such as soy and quinoa. The only animal-based protein that is not complete is gelatin, which is made of the protein collagen.
Figure 6.18 Complete and Incomplete Protein Sources
Examples of complete protein sources include soy, dairy products, meat, and seafood. Examples of incomplete protein sources include legumes and corn.
Most plant-based foods are deficient in at least one essential amino acid and therefore are incomplete protein sources. For example, grains are usually deficient in the amino acid lysine, and legumes are deficient in methionine or tryptophan. Because grains and legumes are not deficient in the same amino acids they can complement each other in a diet. Incomplete protein foods are called complementary foods because when consumed in tandem they contain all nine essential amino acids at adequate levels. Some examples of complementary protein foods are given in Table 6.4 “Complementing Protein Sources the Vegan Way”. Complementary protein sources do not have to be consumed at the same time—as long as they are consumed within the same day, you will meet your protein needs.
Table 6.4 Complementing Protein Sources the Vegan Way
Lacking Amino Acids
Grains, nuts, and seeds
Hummus and whole-wheat pita
Lysine, isoleucine, threonine
Cornbread and kidney bean chili
Nuts and seeds
Stir-fried tofu with cashews
The second component of protein quality is digestibility, as not all protein sources are equally digested. In general, animal-based proteins are completely broken down during the process of digestion, whereas plant-based proteins are not. This is because some proteins are contained in the plant’s fibrous cell walls and these pass through the digestive tract unabsorbed by the body.
Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS)
The PDCAAS is a method adopted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine a food’s protein quality. It is calculated using a formula that incorporates the total amount of amino acids in the food and the amount of protein in the food that is actually digested by humans. The food’s protein quality is then ranked against the foods highest in protein quality. Milk protein, egg whites, whey, and soy all have a ranking of one, the highest ranking. Other foods’ ranks are listed in Table 6.5 “PDCAAS of Various Foods”.
Table 6.5 PDCAAS of Various Foods
*1 is the highest rank, 0 is the lowest
Protein Needs: Special Considerations
Some groups may need to examine how to meet their protein needs more closely than others. We will take a closer look at the special protein considerations for vegetarians, the elderly, and athletes.
Vegetarians and Vegans
People who follow variations of the vegetarian diet and consume eggs and/or dairy products can meet their protein requirements by consuming adequate amounts of these foods. Vegetarians and vegans can also attain their recommended protein intakes if they give a little more attention to high-quality plant-based protein sources. However, when following a vegetarian diet, the amino acid lysine can be challenging to acquire. Grains, nuts, and seeds are lysine-poor foods, but tofu, soy, quinoa, and pistachios are all good sources of lysine. Following a vegetarian diet and getting the recommended protein intake is also made a little more difficult because the digestibility of plant-based protein sources is lower than the digestibility of animal-based protein.
To begin planning a more plant-based diet, start by finding out which types of food you want to eat and in what amounts you should eat them to ensure that you get the protein you need. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has analyzed how three different, plant-based dietary patterns can meet the recommended dietary guidelines for all nutrients.
The diets are defined in the following manner:
Plant-based. Fifty percent of protein is obtained from plant foods.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian. All animal products except eggs and dairy are eliminated.
Vegan. All animal products are eliminated.
These diets are analyzed and compared to the more common dietary pattern of Americans, which is referred to as the USDA Base Diet. Table 6.6 “Percentage of “Meat and Beans Group” Components in the USDA Base Diet, and Three Vegetarian Variations” and Table 7.7 “Proportions of Milk Products and Calcium-Fortified Soy Products in the Base USDA Patterns and Three Vegetarian Variations” can be used to help determine what percentage of certain foods to eat when following a different dietary pattern. The percentages of foods in the different groups are the proportions consumed by the population, so that, on average, Americans obtain 44.6 percent of their foods in the meat and beans group from meats. If you choose to follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, the meats, poultry, and fish can be replaced by consuming a higher percentage of soy products, nuts, seeds, dry beans, and peas. As an aside, the DGAC notes that these dietary patterns may not exactly align with the typical diet patterns of people in the United States. However, they do say that they can be adapted as a guide to develop a more plant-based diet that does not significantly affect nutrient adequacy.
Table 6.6 Percentage of “Meat and Beans Group” Components in the USDA Base Diet, and Three Vegetarian Variations
Base USDA (%)
Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian (%)
Fish (high omega-3)
Fish (low omega-3)
Nuts and seeds
Dry beans and peas
*The dry beans and peas are in the vegetable food group of the base diet. Source: Vegetarian Food Patterns: Food Pattern Modeling Analysis. US Department of Agriculture. Appendix E-3.3. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/DGAC/Report/AppendixE-3-3-Vegetarian.pdf. Accessed September 28, 2017.
Table 6.7 Proportions of Milk Products and Calcium-Fortified Soy Products in the Base USDA Patterns and Three Vegetarian Variations
Base USDA (%)
Lacto-ovo vegetarian (%)
Soy milk (w/ calcium)
Rice milk (w/ calcium)
Tofu (w/ calcium)
Source: Vegetarian Food Patterns: Food Pattern Modeling Analysis. US Department of Agriculture. Appendix E-3.3. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/DGAC/Report/AppendixE-3-3-Vegetarian.pdf. Accessed September 28, 2017.
From these analyses the DGAC concluded that the plant-based, lacto-ovo vegetarian, and vegan diets do not significantly affect nutrient adequacy. Additionally, the DGAC states that people who choose to obtain proteins solely from plants should include foods fortified with vitamins B12, D, and calcium. Other nutrients of concern may be omega-3 fatty acids and choline.
As we age, muscle mass gradually declines. This is a process referred to as sarcopenia. A person is sarcopenic when their amount of muscle tissue is significantly lower than the average value for a healthy person of the same age. A significantly lower muscle mass is associated with weakness, movement disorders, and a generally poor quality of life. It is estimated that about half the US population of men and women above the age of eighty are sarcopenic. A review published in the September 2010 issue of Clinical Intervention in Aging demonstrates that higher intakes (1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of weight per day) of high-quality protein may prevent aging adults from becoming sarcopenic.
Currently, the RDA for protein for elderly persons is the same as that for the rest of the adult population, but several clinical trials are ongoing and are focused on determining the amount of protein in the diet that prevents the significant loss of muscle mass specifically in older adults.
Muscle tissue is rich in protein composition and has a very high turnover rate. During exercise, especially when it is performed for longer than two to three hours, muscle tissue is broken down and some of the amino acids are catabolized to fuel muscle contraction. To avert excessive borrowing of amino acids from muscle tissue to synthesize energy during prolonged exercise, protein needs to be obtained from the diet. Intense exercise, such as strength training, stresses muscle tissue so that afterward, the body adapts by building bigger, stronger, and healthier muscle tissue. The body requires protein post-exercise to accomplish this. The IOM does not set different RDAs for protein intakes for athletes, but the AND, the American College of Sports Medicine, and Dietitians of Canada have the following position statements:
Nitrogen balance studies suggest that dietary protein intake necessary to support nitrogen balance in endurance athletes ranges from 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Recommended protein intakes for strength-trained athletes range from approximately 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of weight per day.
An endurance athlete who weighs 170 pounds (=170 ÷ 2.2 in kg) should take in 93 to 108 grams of protein per day (170 ÷ 2.2 × 1.2 and 170 ÷ 2.2 × 1.4). On a 3,000-kilocalorie diet, that amount is between 12 and 14 percent of total kilocalories and within the AMDR. There is general scientific agreement that endurance and strength athletes should consume protein from high-quality sources, such as dairy, eggs, lean meats, or soy; however eating an excessive amount of protein at one time does not further stimulate muscle-protein synthesis. Nutrition experts also recommend that athletes consume some protein within one hour after exercise to enhance muscle tissue repair during the recovery phase, but some carbohydrates and water should be consumed as well. The recommended ratio from nutrition experts for exercise-recovery foods is 4 grams of carbohydrates to 1 gram of protein.
Table 6.8 Snacks for Exercise Recovery
Whole grain cereal with nonfat milk
Medium banana with nonfat milk
In response to hard training, a person’s body also adapts by becoming more efficient in metabolizing nutrient fuels both for energy production and building macromolecules. However, this raises another question: if athletes are more efficient at using protein, is it necessary to take in more protein from dietary sources than the average person? There are two scientific schools of thought on this matter. One side believes athletes need more protein and the other thinks the protein requirements of athletes are the same as for nonathletes. There is scientific evidence to support both sides of this debate. The consensus of both sides is that few people exercise at the intensity that makes this debate relevant. It is good to remember that the increased protein intake recommended by the AND, American College of Sports Medicine, and Dietitians of Canada still lies within the AMDR for protein.
Protein supplements include powders made from compounds such as whey, soy or amino acids that either come as a powder or in capsules. It has been previously noted that the protein requirements for most people, even those that are active, is not high. Is taking protein supplements ever justified, then? Neither protein nor amino acid supplements have been scientifically proven to improve exercise performance or increase strength. In addition, the average American already consumes more protein than is required. Despite these facts, many highly physically active individuals use protein or amino acid supplements. According to the AND, American College of Sports Medicine, and Dietitians of Canada, “the current evidence indicates that protein and amino acid supplements are no more or no less effective than food when energy is adequate for gaining lean body mass.”
Branched-chain amino acids, such as leucine, are often touted as a way to build muscle tissue and enhance athletic performance. Despite these marketing claims, a review in the June 2005 issue of The Journal of Nutrition shows that most studies that evaluated a variety of exercise types failed to show any performance–enhancing effects of taking branched-chain amino acids.
Although the evidence for protein and amino acid supplements impacting athletic performance is lacking, there is some scientific evidence that supports consuming high-quality dairy proteins, such as casein and whey, and soy proteins positively influences muscle recovery in response to hard training. If you choose to buy a bucket of whey protein, use it to make a protein shake after an intense workout and do not add more than what is required to obtain 20 to 25 grams of protein. Moreover, relying on supplements for extra protein instead of food will not provide you with any of the other essential nutrients. The evidence to show that they are superior to regular food in enhancing exercise performance is not sufficient.
What about the numerous protein shakes and protein bars on the market? Are they a good source of dietary protein? Do they help you build muscle or lose weight as marketers claim? These are not such a bad idea for an endurance or strength athlete who has little time to fix a nutritious exercise-recovery snack. Some protein bars have a high amount of carbohydrates from added sugars and are not actually the best source for protein, especially if you are not an athlete. Protein bars are nutritionally designed to restore carbohydrates and protein after endurance or strength training; therefore they are not good meal replacements. If you want a low-cost alternative after an intense workout, make yourself a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread and add some sliced banana for less than fifty cents.
Supermarket and health-food store shelves offer an extraordinary number of high-protein shake mixes. While the carbohydrate count is lower now in some of these products than a few years ago, they still contain added fats and sugars. Use the AMDRs for macronutrients as a guide.
Chapter 13 Lifespan Nutrition From Pregnancy to the Toddler Years
Chapter 14 Lifespan Nutrition During Childhood and Adolescence
Chapter 15 Lifespan Nutrition in Adulthood
Chapter 17 Food Safety
Chapter 18 Nutritional Issues
Chapters and sections were borrowed and adapted from the above existing OER textbooks on human nutrition. Without these foundational texts, a lot more work would have been required to complete this project. Thank you to those who shared before us.